SURVIVAL WITH STYLE
THE WOMEN OF THE SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS
The advent of the railroad
through the Santa Cruz Mountains marked the end for toll road keepers
like Charlie McKiernan and stagecoach drivers like Charley Parkhurst,
but it opened the way for the developing fruit and vineyard business.
Small settlements sprang up as the railroad advanced and became shipping
centers for produce and lumber. Wright's Station was one of these
centers, and it was Alice Matty's home.
In 1887 journalist Josephine McCracken saw the town in its heyday,
and wrote that Wrights (as it was commonly called) had ". . . a
depot, hotel, store, post office, blacksmith shop, besides a number of
decidedly ugly and disgraceful-looking Chinese stores and wash houses.
Fir-crowned mountains frowned down upon it, and the hideous black mouth
of the great tunnel close by is always wide open, with the evident and
determined intention of swallowing up the train -- engine, cars, and all
-- as it approached from the San Francisco side."
Alice's father, Antone Matty, was originally from the Maritime Alps
region of France. In 1880, he moved his family from San Francisco to
Wrights, where he worked in the general store for eight years.
An overheated stove in the town's hotel caused a fire in 1885 that
burnt the entire settlement to the ground. While it was being rebuilt,
Antone ran the store from a boxcar parked on the railroad siding.54
By 1888, Antone had saved enough money to buy the store, and by 1896 he
owned the town. Since they had six children, Antone was instrumental in
organizing a school district, and soon the town had a school. It was a
shingle-walled building with a belfry, and was in operation until 1928.
Matty became a member of the Santa Clara Valley Pioneer Association, and
later joined the Sempervirens Club, a conservation organization devoted
to saving the redwoods.
Southern Pacific bought out the narrow gauge railroad about this time
and decided to take advantage of the then-current craze for picnic
excursion trains. They opened a short spur line along the creek at
Wrights. They named the area "Sunset Park," and began hauling
trainloads of passengers into the mountains to enjoy the beauties of
nature and the conviviality of unrestrained partying. The Mattys were
scandalized by the riotous conduct of the city folks, who were reported
to have gathered armloads of ferns and wildflowers, left a trail of
discarded litter strewn along the railroad right-of-way, and kicked out
the passenger car windows on the return trip. It took the earthquake of
1906 to finally shut down Sunset Park.55
Alice, her sisters Teresa and Anna, and her three brothers grew up
surrounded by the excitement and dangers that went with railroading at
Wrights. When the station agent, Mr. Hunter, was replaced in the 1900's,
Alice, by now a bright, conscientious young lady, was appointed to take
over his position, becoming the first woman station agent hired by
Southern Pacific in California. Bruce MacGregor described the job: The
Wrights station agent inked in waybills for loadings of hay, beans,
prunes and figs, cargo that would fill two or three boxcars a day. The
lumber freighting eclipsed all other cargoes combined.56
There was a daily freight from Alameda and as many as half a dozen local
freights mixed trains (passengers and freight) rumbling through the
Santa Cruz Mountains every day on their way to Santa Cruz or San Jose.
In addition to preparing waybills, Alice was the telegrapher and the
ticket agent. She handled the manual signal levers that threw the
switches when trains needed to be taken off the mainline and placed on
sidings. Located where it was, in the bottom of a canyon, Wrights had
its share of flash floods, rock slides and forest fires. She frequently
had to telegraph for a repair crew to clear rocks from the track, or
shore up a sagging roadbed after a heavy storm. And with the increased
rail traffic came an increase in the number of accidents, all adding to
the pressure of her job. Her reputation as a quick wit was known up and
down the line, and the other agents probably left their keys open to
catch Alice's telegraphed messages.
Alice's brother, Louis, had been badly burned while fighting a forest
fire that swept through the mountains in October of 1899. He and his
brother Frank had gone to help put out the fire at Ernst Meyer's winery
in Austrian Gulch. It was more than a neighborly act. Their sister Anna
was married to Emil Meyer, Ernst's son. Again, in 1904 Louis went out to
fight another forest fire and lost his life. A few months later, in
November, Alice's mother died. The family was disappearing. Anna and
Frank were married and had their own homes, Teresa had died at eighteen
in an accident, and now Louis and their mother were gone, leaving Antone
and Alice alone in the big family home at Wrights. After all the years
of excitement and activity everything seemed strangely quiet and
subdued. Even the town of Wrights seemed to be quietly fading away.
Alice never married, perhaps because she decided to stay at Wrights
and look after her father, who lived until 1922. In later years she
worked at the Bank of America in Los Gatos when it was located at the
corner of Main Street and Santa Cruz Avenue.57 The banking
business must have seemed rather tame when she remembered the excitement
of the early railroading days at Wrights, a town that has so completely
disappeared that today no trace of it is left except the ruins of the
54 Payne, op. cit., p. 44.
55 Bruce A. MacGregor, A Centennial: South Pacific Coast
(Boulder, Colo., 1982), p. 195.
56 Bruce A. MacGregor, South Pacific Coast (Berkeley, 1968), p.
57 Betty Ermert, telephone interview, March 28, 1986.